How To Vote In California: What To Do Ahead Of The March 3 Primary Election

Voters try out the Voting Solutions for All People equipment at L.A. County's mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. on Sept. 28, 2019. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

This is part of Voter Game Plan, our project to get you prepped for the 2020 elections. Read up on races, ballot measures, upcoming deadlines and the big changes happening in the way we vote for the March 3 primary. And if you have questions about voting, ask us anything.


This year brings a presidential election along with a bevy of state and local races — contests that are arguably even more consequential to everyday life in Los Angeles than who occupies the fancy digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Beginning with the primary on March 3, Southern California voters will decide the future of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, the fate of seven Los Angeles city council seats, three spots on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, and nearly half a dozen contested House districts that could impact the balance of political power in Congress.

The primary also brings a gauntlet of major changes to how we vote in L.A. and Orange Counties.

We're here to help you put together a game plan as you navigate the voting process and go deeper into the issues and candidates on your ballot.

To that end, the new year is a good time to get some civic housekeeping taken care of, so here are some things to keep in mind as we start the 2020 election journey together.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL. VOTING CHANGES ARE HERE.

We can't say this enough: If you vote in-person in L.A. County or Orange County, how you vote will be different in 2020.

Here's the first difference: You're probably saying goodbye to your neighborhood polling place. In place of the local church, school cafeteria, or neighbor's garage that you're used to voting in, there will be larger "vote centers" open for up to ten days before the election. The vote center model lets you vote anywhere in the county, get help in multiple languages, replace a lost or damaged ballot, and register to vote or change your voter registration same-day.

Again, you likely will not be voting at your traditional polling place anymore. So make a mental note, lest you show up at your old spot come election day and no one is there.

The second difference: In-person voters will be using new ballot marking machines, involving tablet computers similar to an iPad, instead of the old InkaVote system. It's a major upgrade to L.A. and O.C. voting technology that hasn't changed in decades.

This is what the L.A. County version looks like in action:

There will even be an app you can use to pre-select your choices at home, before walking into the polling center. The app has a code to scan that you will use to print your ballot, at which point you can double-check your choices before officially casting it.

This is happening because lawmakers in Sacramento passed the Voters Choice Act in 2016. The law allows counties across the state to choose when to implement the new vote center model, consolidating polling places to fewer locations that are open for several days ahead of the election.

WHAT? NO MORE NEIGHBORHOOD POLLING PLACES? WHERE DO I VOTE NOW?

Officials released the locations of the vote centers in January.

Here are all the voting centers in L.A. County, as a map and a full list.

Here are all the voting centers in Orange County, as a map and a full list.

You're no longer assigned a specific place to vote, so you can vote at any voting center in your county. Some will be open for four days and some will be open for 11 days — be sure to check specifics for the location you plan to go to.

Elections officials have been holding public meetings and gathering input from community groups for months to determine the final locations of these centers. You can read more about their selection process here.

HAVE SOME COUNTIES ALREADY MADE THESE CHANGES? HOW DID IT GO?

Five counties, including Sacramento and Napa, implemented the Voter's Choice Act in the 2018 midterm election. They reported small gains in primary and general election turnout — around 3 or 4 percent. The system has also reportedly saved them money.

The L.A. County Registrar Recorder, Dean Logan, says this is going to be a better consumer experience for voters.

The centers will be open more hours, days ahead of the March 3 election, so they are more convenient for working people. You will be able to check in and print your ballot right on-site, so voters can go to any vote center in the county, instead of one designated polling place.

And election officials want to emphasize that everyone is still voting with a paper ballot that's printed out at the end of the process, allowing voters to double-check their choices before actually casting their vote.

These machines are also not connected to the internet, hopefully cutting down on security vulnerabilities.

WHAT SHOULD I KNOW IF I VOTE BY MAIL?

Good question, because about two-thirds of California voters mail in their ballots these days. But L.A. County residents are much less likely to choose that option. Only about 40 percent of LA county voters were registered as permanent-vote-by-mail users in the 2018 statewide primary.

One interesting thing to note: L.A. County is exempt — just this one time — from sending every voter a ballot in the mail, which is required under the Voter's Choice Act.

So for 2020, L.A. voters still have to register as permanent or one-time vote-by-mail voters to get their ballots delivered by snail mail.

But in most counties that are adopting the new law — like Orange County, for example — every single registered voter will be mailed an absentee ballot. Voters can choose to drop it off in a mailbox or a secure ballot drop box, or get a fresh ballot in-person at one of the vote centers once they're open.

By the way, no one who votes by mail in California has to worry about stamps anymore. Postage is prepaid.

Yesenia Zambrano (and her canine pal Eevee) try out L.A. County's new ballot marking machines during the September 28, 2019 mock election at Salazar Park in East L.A. (Al Kamalizad for LAist)

WHAT SHOULD VOTERS BE DOING RIGHT NOW TO GET READY?

When it comes to the March primary, forget election day. It's really more like an election month in California.

The primary is officially March 3, but vote-by-mail ballots begin going out February 3 — and several hundred vote centers in L.A. and Orange County will begin opening February 22.

Right now, everyone can check their voter registration on the Secretary of State's website, and it's a good time to encourage friends and relatives to look into their registration status. Make sure you're a) on the rolls, b) see what party you're registered under and c) check that your address is up to date.

[To check your California voter registration status or register for the first time, click here. You can also call the California Secretary of State's Voter Hotline at 1-800-345-VOTE (8683).]

If you're in L.A. and you'd like to vote absentee, now's also a good time to check if you're a permanent vote-by-mail voter or if you need to request a one-time vote by mail ballot.

Los Angeles County voters: check your vote-by-mail status here. (All Orange County voters will be automatically mailed a vote-by-mail ballot in 2020.)

L.A. and Orange County elections officials, local governments and community groups are working to get the word out about the new vote centers and why neighborhood polling places are going away. But if you know people in your orbit who are likely to miss this advertising blitz — especially young folks, the elderly, or people with limited English, etc. — you might want to ask them if they know about the voting changes.

ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD WATCH OUT FOR?

Yup. This a presidential election year, and every four years one major thing tends to trip people up.

If you are a "No Party Preference" voter — which means you're not registered as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or any other party — and you vote by mail — you'll need to request a Democratic ballot if you want to vote in the Democratic presidential nominating contest on the March 3 ballot.

Otherwise, when February rolls around, you're going to get a nonpartisan ballot in the mail with zero presidential candidates to choose from.

That's right, zero.

HOLD UP. IF I'M A 'NO PARTY PREFERENCE' VOTER AND I VOTE BY MAIL, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES WON'T AUTOMATICALLY SHOW UP ON MY BALLOT? WHAT GIVES?

It's true. Candidates for all other down-ballot races, including congressional, state legislature, city council, etc. will be on your ballot.

But in a presidential race, state political parties control who gets to weigh in on their primaries.

California has a modified closed primary system. The Democratic Party (along with the Libertarian Party and a couple others) allows non-Democrats to request crossover ballots to vote for their presidential candidates.

But vote-by-mail No Party Preference voters still have to take an extra step to request a ballot with Democratic candidates.

The Republican party, on the other hand, does not allow crossover voting. To vote for President Trump or one of his Republican challengers, you'll have to register with the GOP to vote in that presidential primary. Same goes for the Green and Peace And Freedom parties.

In-person voters don't face this problem anymore — they can simply walk in to one of the new vote centers once they open in late February and request a Democratic ballot.

The deadline to request a crossover ballot in the mail is the same as the vote-by-mail request cutoff, February 25th.

No Party Preference voters are now the second largest slice of the electorate in California, behind Democrats, so this affects a lot of people.

I DON'T WANT TO BE LEFT OUT. HOW DO 'NO PARTY PREFERENCE' VOTERS GET A CROSSOVER BALLOT?

If you are a vote-by-mail, No Party Preference voter, there are several ways you can get a crossover Democratic ballot:

— You can return one of the postcards that county election offices have been sending out over the holidays to get the Democratic ballot mailed to your address.

The Secretary of State's office shared these examples:

Note: Your postcard may include a deadline from your County Registrar-Recorder's office. But, real talk: this is meant to encourage voters to respond early and avoid printing and mailing multiple ballots to each voter. IT IS NOT TOO LATE TO ASK FOR A CROSSOVER BALLOT. Send that postcard in any time by the February 25th vote-by-mail deadline.

Many, many voters are not mailing back these postcards. In Los Angeles County, the return rate is so far under 5 percent, according to the Registrar Recorder's office, which has received just 42,100 out of the nearly 900,000 cards mailed to No Party Preference voters in December.

If you didn't get a postcard, or it got lost in your pile of holiday catalogs and junk mail, you can also request the ballot you want by phone, fax or an email to your county elections office. Here's a list of contact information for every California county's election office.

[The Los Angeles County Registrar's office in Norwalk is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can call them at (800) 815-2666. You'll get a phone menu to navigate, so here's a shortcut: press 2 and then 3 to reach someone who can help you request a crossover ballot. You can also email voterinfo@rrcc.lacounty.gov for more help.]

Again, if you get the No Party Preference ballot in the mail in February, but you're hoping to vote in the Democratic (or Libertarian, etc.) primary, you can always go in-person to any vote center to exchange it for a party-specific ballot.

YIKES. THIS IS A LOT TO REMEMBER

It is. But we are here for you all year. LAist's Voter Game Plan project has more details, and I'd love to hear your questions or concerns about the voting changes.

Please send me an email, get in touch on Twitter, or use the question box below!

[Monday, Feb. 4, 12:00 p.m.: This story was updated with information on the locations of voting centers in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Friday, Jan. 3, 4:00 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect the number of Los Angeles County crossover ballot request postcards returned to the Registrar Recorder's office.]